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Tomb Raider (Xbox 360) artwork

Tomb Raider (Xbox 360) review

"Tomb Raiders are always in need of a reboot, because their careers are in ruins."

Lara’s had more than a few turbulent years since an ‘accidental mouse slip’ brought her to prominence almost two decades ago. Championed first by Core Designs, then shipped off to Crystal Dynamics, she’s undergone rewrites, retcons and ever-changing personal tragedies. Her history has been altered often enough, and her relatives resurrected and then killed off under wildly different circumstances enough to make her twisted canon a nightmare to follow. Her mother died at birth, then she died on a ship instead, then she’s alive, except she’s not. Lara’s even been killed off herself once; that lasted all of a year. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that in her ever-shifting landscape of dead ends and unresolved cliff-hangers that it’s in going right back to the beginning that she changes the most.

Tomb Raider is one of these series reboots you see everywhere you look, and, as such, Lara’s no longer the ice queen she’s often portrayed as (aside from that awful period they tried to rewrite her as a flirty archaeology floozy we all seem to pretend never happened). She’s younger, fresher, no longer has twin guns glued to her hands, no longer wears the khaki equivalent of hot pants and her head is actually bigger than her bust. These are noteworthy changes, but should never be the focus. In this outing, Lara is raw, inexperienced and naïve, shipwrecked on an island filled with hostiles who want her and the people she cares about dead. It’s a situation that forces her to do the unthinkable constantly to survive, and the incidents that play out are unapologetically gritty; should rapid currents get the better of her, Lara will be fatally flung into protruding debris that will spear through her throat, leaving her a scant few seconds of life to pointlessly grasp at the protrusion before falling limp. If she’s overcome by wolves, she doesn’t just die; she’s mauled. If she doesn’t manage to fit though an ever decreasing gap during a rock slide, she’s crushed. It’s not a graphic death, but the screen is filled with unforgiving stone and glimpses of a small section of the heroine’s lifeless face. It’s uncomfortable viewing.

Tomb Raider asset

The new take on the franchise is a million miles apart from the Lara of old, but that’s the point. Tomb Raider tries very hard to tell a story that explains how she turned out the way we know her, and does a brilliant job of painting her afraid and vulnerable. She starts the game being abducted by an unknown force, and from there she’s left hanging from the roof of a cave to die. She’ll have to scramble past the corpses of former colleagues in order to survive. In these panic-filled moments, she sobs and cries. Squeezing herself through a flooded, rock-lined corridor that only affords her a scant few inches of breathing space leads to gulped yelps of distress in between nervous stumbles that see her vanish underwater for uncomfortable periods of time. Should she manage to survive the ordeal, she sets up a shelter from the raging storm that serves as a light at the end of a tunnel, huddling under a rocky outcrop, shivering violently from the wet and the cold.

Tomb Raider really is a distressing stumble from one personal apocalypse to another. Finding the remnants of your crew leads you into a burning village. You’re captured again, your hands are bound, and you’re forced to sneak through the burning ribcages of huts while madmen with guns seek you out. Lara’s captured; she’s beaten, and the seeds of imminent sexual abuse are planted. She fights back, and, in her struggle, a sizable section of her abductor’s face is blown off. It’s gory, uncompromising. You’re forced to observe the light leave the man’s eyes, to listen to his death rattle, to watch Lara fail to hold back her disgust and sorrow. It’s worth pointing out that a similar ‘first kill’ moment was used in Tomb Raider: Anniversary (a game that had you only kill three human adversaries right at the end), but the gravity and emotional kickback it’s afforded here is shocking. Seconds later, Lara’s worked her way through the rest of the enemy platoon, and a concerned ally asks how she’s coping with the sudden blood on her hands. It’s with a sense of guilt and fright that she admits how easy it’s become.

Tomb Raider asset

Throughout the tale, Lara is forced to slowly harden to the situations that assail her. When a friend tries to take on the island on his own, she mentally lambastes him, only half out of worry, for having to undertake the same soul-wrenching decisions she was forced into. She becomes uncompromising and bitter, but still retains a lingering sense of regret for the things she’d had to do, and for the parts of herself that she’s lost forever. Sneaking through forests, silently putting arrows into the back of a guard’s head, or holding point at the mouth of a shanty town against waves of armed foes may invite criticism that focus is put too much on battle at points, something Tomb Raider has never been about. It would be a fair point, but I see there being more of a case that it’s something Tomb Raider has never done right, instead. Until now.

Gone is the auto aiming, and the way that all battles were more or less a case of circling opponents, shooting endlessly until they fall over and die. Lara’s arsenal isn’t large, but the emphasis is all on you using it correctly to overcome almost always stacked odds. Bull-rushing enemies can be seen off with a decent shotgun blast to the chest, while unaware guards can be sniped with a well-placed arrow and no one’s the wiser. Frantic firefights have Lara dashing from points of cover, firing assault rifle bullets into ranks desperately, while avoiding sticks of dynamite or Molotov cocktails. One such exchange has you traversing rickety wooden boardwalks susceptible to flames. In a second, your entire platform can be alive with splintering wood and flickering embers unless you ensure you target your greatest threats early.

What really helps highlight these desperate set pieces is not only the excellent pacing that ensures they’re separated by spells of exploration, but the ability Lara seems to have to think for herself. If she’s under fire, she naturally takes cover. You don’t need to click an analogue stick or press a button to prompt her to duck from the deadly hail of bullets zoning in on her face. Likewise, when cover has been destroyed, or an explosive lands inconveniently at her feet, she doesn’t calmly roll away, but scrambles like her life depends on it. Because, you know, it completely does.

Tomb Raider asset

Little touches like this go a long way, and have a habit of fully immersing the player. If there’s a sudden spike of noise, Lara’s head will snap in that direction. If she traverses a narrow path and she strays close to the wall, she’ll stretch out a hand to steady herself. If she leaps for a platform and only just makes it, she’ll flail in a bubble of panic until she manages to regain her footing. She’ll reassure herself when she’s afraid, or light torches on her own when uninhabited dark pathways beckon. She’ll initiate a crouch when the ceiling gets low, or squeeze herself through gaps unprompted. Her exploration of the island can be as vigorous or as casual as you want it to be, but travelling around it is seamless. You don’t have to seek out all the hidden documents that give away little snippets of the island’s dark past, nor do you need to hunt down all the artifacts hidden in dark corners, but all the tools you'll need to find them are made available. You can wash the screen in monochrome tones, allowing items of interest to be highlighted, or discover treasure maps that add each point of interest to your map. You can even delve into desecrated tombs and enjoy a little throwback to yesteryear, back when Lara’s adventures were more about muddling through cerebral puzzles than it was watching a soft girl turn slowly to stone.

Maybe that’s Tomb Raider‘s one big letdown: even if you seek them out, there’s little more than a dozen or so chances to take part in environmental obstacles you really need to stop and think about. Tomb Raider‘s more about climbing than it is thinking, more about clawing at your soul than it is nudging at your brain. It gives you the chance to upgrade weapons on the fly, or to learn new skills through accumulated experience points, and it creeps further and further away from the game it used to be. My big surprise was just how okay I found myself with that evolution. Okay enough to spend the time to ensure that I had found every last hidden extra, raided every optional tomb, and found every forgotten scrap of documentation, all before I stepped into the final stage of the game. I’d meant to write this sooner; people were counting on the fact that I would. But I had unfinished business on the island. That took precedence.

Tomb Raider takes everything you think you know about one of gaming’s best known franchises, and reinvents it from the ground up, but still retains enough of a lingering sense of heritage to stay relevant to the series. This isn’t a story about the Lara Croft you’ve already met: this is the tale of how she came to be. It’s both wonderful heartbreak and an exciting new beginning.

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (March 16, 2013)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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A clever inside reference.


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Masters posted July 03, 2018:

Whoa, dunno how I missed this review. Excellent work. I liked this line in particular: "You can even delve into desecrated tombs and enjoy a little throwback to yesteryear, back when Lara’s adventures were more about muddling through cerebral puzzles than it was watching a soft girl turn slowly to stone."

Hard to turn evocations like that when writing about shite toilet-fodder like Knight Terrors. Maybe get back to writing about games worthy of your efforts?
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EmP posted July 06, 2018:

Ah, yes. Those days. When I played full studio releases and have more actual game to talk about.

I don't know why I made the full switch to indie stuff over big budget titles, but I've just never felt the urge to go back. I think I certainly wrote better reviews overall in that period, then. Simpy because there was often more subject matter at hand.

I do intend to play the new(er) Tomb Raider over the summer, though. maybe that'll jumpstart me.

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